Does scholarly publishing drive information technology (IT)? Or does IT drive scholarly publishing?
If you believe the former, you essentially agree that academic culture trumps technology — that incentives reflecting a deeper belief system ultimately blunt and shape any intrusion of technology; legal and cultural precedents largely withstand the whims of technological change; and human nature remains fundamentally the same despite a new veneer of technological capabilities.
If you believe the latter, you probably instinctively feel that technological revolutions will inevitably yield social revolutions on a magnitude as great or greater than the technology itself would suggest; that legal and social contracts can crumble under the pressure of technological change; and that human nature can be overcome if surrounded by enough technology.
Open access advocates and self-anointed revolutionaries often come from the “technology trumps culture” camp. I remember asking Harold Varmus in the early days of e-Biomed why it seemed he was attacking subscription publishers. His answer was essentially, “We want to see what the Internet can do to publishing.” This was a “technology drives publishing” answer. It would have been perhaps even more interesting to say, “We want to see what publishing can do to the Internet.” After all, when Sergey Brin and Larry Page did that, they invented PageRank and Google — IT, it should be noted, that only made publishing, and publishing well, more important.
One of the wisest technologists I’ve ever met once told me that the best form of discipline he found for handling technology was very much akin to the discipline of peer-reviewed publishing — that is, preparing something to be publicly released, seeing its flaws, revising it, trying again, revising again, asking others for input in a more or less private way, revising again, checking again, revising once more, letting an expert attack it, responding to questions, revising it, and finally releasing it. From this vantage point, good software development actually mirrors the path to publication quite closely.
Yesterday, a fact-free, shamelessly promotional screed entitled “The Future of Science,” was published as a guest post on TechCrunch by Richard Price, the founder of Academia.edu. While TechCrunch should be ashamed of posting such a puff piece, Price falls all over himself groping technology while revealing a great deal of ignorance about what peer-review accomplishes (e.g., in a comment, Price claims peer-review is an aid to discovery).
Price also seems to be about 15 years behind the curve with his revelations: The Internet provides instant distribution! (Ahem, yes, we know. Thanks for that blazing insight.) The Web provides rich media opportunities! (Again, known and rather well-exploited, with video, animations, interactive education, podcasts, interviews, blogs, video abstracts, and many other multimedia initiatives having come to life over the past decade and a half in journals both large and small.) The Internet lets other people comment on stuff! (Yes. You seem very excitable. Would you like some warm tea?)
How much information technology arrogance does Price reveal? He claims “[c]ancer could be cured 2-3 years sooner” if only his outdated information technology dreams could magically come true. He also claims that “[i]n 5-10 years’ time, the way scientists will communicate will be unrecognizable from the way that they have been communicating for the last 400 years” — forgetting entirely that scientific publishers and scientists have been using the Internet via graphical browsers for more than 15 years, and the non-graphical version for more like 30-40 years. Why the next 5-10 years will suddenly upend academic culture is unclear.
It seems to me there’s far more evidence pointing to technology having a secondary role to the cultural goals — and their derivative, incentives — of scientists and academics:
- Despite more than a decade of rich HTML interfaces, the formatted article encapsulated in the PDF remains the coin of the realm in academic publishing. Innovations around PDF sharing — Medeley specifically — are red hot because of this (a point Price misses completely). Most publishers know that their HTML views are generally waypoints for researchers, who either find the article not to their liking or, if it is to their liking, head quickly to the PDF. The culture of the article object remains powerful. It’s efficient for both the producer and the consumer.
- Emergent analytical systems — alt-metrics — have made little headway, while the oft-criticized impact factor has become even more deeply integrated into incentive systems related to researcher pay, academic advancement, and journal prestige. The culture of incentives and publish-or-perish has only become more powerful. Again, efficiency plays a big part in this trend. Alt-metrics are very inefficient to both create and consume.
- Commenting systems and blogs have been effectively stymied by academic culture. For many technology boosters, it seemed comments and blogs would unleash a torrent of ideas and exchanges from and between brash young digital natives. Instead, comments are far fewer than anticipated, and tend to come from mid-career academics at that sweet spot of career stability and continued ambition. With no academic reward and much risk to blogging, academic blogging has been spotty at best — it works here and there, and with the right leaders, but not because of the technology itself.
A recent interview with the departing chair of the Australian Research Council underscores how complicated and nuanced the zone of scientific research communications is, a complexity that dominates any technological capabilities:
. . . this is a very complex space. It’s much more complex than many of the open access advocates understand. The naive position is, yes, it’s taxpayer-funded research, we should make it publicly available. But that doesn’t necessarily make it accessible.
I read this interview one recent morning just before discussing a complex problem — potential author malfeasance — with a colleague of mine at another publisher. The potential problems with data fabrication and manipulation have nothing to do with technology. Academic and scholarly cultures discipline liars and cheats. Technology can help us find more of those, but the fundamental issue isn’t a technological one.
The complexity of publishing emerges in many other ways — whether it’s publishing staff who help train working scientists how to be editors, acquisition editors identifying academics to produce new books, customer service staff who respond to reader inquiries and problems, or governance bodies who help shape the strategies of evolving organizations.
When you believe technology drives scholarly publishing, scholarly publishing can look like one undifferentiated field — medical publishing is just like math publishing — that seems susceptible to a few conjoined current IT trends. Ultimately, we get superficial hypotheses being over-interpreted and pressed into service beyond the breaking point.
Putting the cart before the horse can lead to lurking dangers. Because publishers like BioMed Central seem to believe that technology is at the heart of a publishing revolution — rather than publishing being at the heart of a technology revolution — they have enabled institutions and companies to pay for quicker, cheaper paths to publication. Companies involved include the world’s second-largest tobacco company and pharmaceutical companies like Sanofi Pasteur:
Do you realize that you can now publish in journals published by BioMed Central, Chemistry Central and SpringerOpen without directly paying any article-processing charges? Payment of your article-processing charges is covered by Sanofi Pasteur MSD’s Prepay Membership.
Technologists also believe that publishing is transportable — anyone can be a publisher. All you need are some basic skills, access to a blogging platform, and some determination. While for certain forms of expression this can be true — this blog is an example — for a complex organism like an academic press or an academic journal, much more is needed, including people with the talent and experience to get it right. I may think I’m a good cook because I can occasionally prepare a surprisingly tasty meal on a Sunday night by following someone else’s recipe and using the right ingredients, but that by no means translates into my ability to create, finance, run, and manage a restaurant. If you’re a “cooking technologist,” you think all you need is an oven, pans, and ingredients.
The time to publication is also decried by technologists, who believe that because you can post a page in a New York minute, posting a scientific article can’t be much harder. This is utter ignorance. If you’ve ever grumbled about having a plane delayed because it hasn’t passed all its safety checks, then caught yourself remembering what’s could happen if someone were to skip steps, you see where haste makes waste. Is it wise to publish as quickly as technology allows? Or is using technology when the information’s as correct as it can be the more prudent and professional course?
One more example of how technology subordinates itself to culture comes from the early days of the printing press. One likes to think that the printing of the Gutenberg Bible led to an amazing book culture and presses springing up everywhere with classics and new works rolling off presses across Europe. The fact is that the “Bible” part of the Gutenberg story is more important culturally, because it was the Catholic Church that promulgated presses in order to print indulgences. By printing these valuable certificates, local clergy could make a mint. In fact, indulgences became a de facto and ultimately devalued currency, leading Martin Luther to nail his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg. The culture of Europe was a church culture, so technology was subordinated to its will. And a few years ago, the Pope built a Facebook page.
This brings to mind a graphic I refer to often, from “The Clock of the Long Now” by Stuart Brand. In it, various levels of the world are depicted as changing at various speeds, a nice depiction of the interactions this post covers. Each deeper layer has modifies and slows the layer above, with the ultimate rate-limiter being nature itself.
As you can see, Brand and the other thinkers in the Long Now Foundation believe that culture changes more slowly. Has the Catholic Church gone away in the few hundred years since Luther’s Protestant Reformation took root? It is still with us, and has a huge effect in the world, even in the face of the changes wrought by technologies like printing presses, motion pictures, radio, air travel, medical care, and the Internet.
Publishers who understand IT are doing better than those who don’t. But that doesn’t mean that information technology drives publishing, or that information technology will do much to revolutionize it.
If the goal is to change the culture of publishing, those who wish to do so will need more than technology and its superficial effects. They will need to go deep into the incentives, cultures, and habits of mind over generations.
So far, there is little evidence that technologists will do anything more than provide publishers, academics, and researchers with more ways of doing what they’ve always done.